Ask anyone for a list of baseball’s greatest players and chances are you get a consensus on a few names such as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Hank Aaron. It’s time to add Mike Trout to that list, because what he is doing this year, in addition to his overall career, is sensational.
The 26-year-old center fielder for the Los Angeles Angels and two-time MVP is batting .310 while leading the majors in home runs (23), walks (54) and on-base percentage (.438), in addition to creating runs at a rate that is more than double the league average after accounting for league and park effects (202 wRC+).
“That guy has been unbelievable,” Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger said of Trout. “Unfortunately, he’s on the opposite team from us, but nothing but respect for what that guy can do.”
Trout has always been productive at the plate — his career OPS heading into this season was .976, 72 percent higher than the average player — but improved plate discipline has helped him find another level of efficiency. He’s chasing a career-low 18 percent of pitches out of the strike zone while making contact on a career-high 90 percent of pitches in the strike zone.
This is just the latest example of Trout working on his weaknesses. For example, in 2014 he struggled with fastballs, especially those high in the zone, hitting .223 with 75 strikeouts in 215 at-bats ending on the pitch. He’s hit .315 with a 1.124 OPS against fastballs since.
Trout mashes off-speed pitches, too. According to data from TruMedia, he is hitting .414 with a 1.554 OPS against change-ups and splitters with five of his 23 home runs coming off those offerings. Curveballs have been an issue in terms of power, but that, too, is relative. His .600 slugging against that pitch is strong despite having just one home run against curves this year. Trout has hit five home runs against sliders in 2018.
With such a well-rounded approach at the plate, it is hard to find ways to improve. Since breaking into the majors in 2011, he leads the league in OPS (.985), weighted on-base average (.416 wOBA), a metric that combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value, and runs created (171 wRC+) after adjusting for league and park effects. Yet Trout is offering even more value to his team through his fielding, which is also on the upswing.
Trout has been credited with eight defensive runs saved this year, a career-high mark and a complete turnaround from last season when he cost his team six runs with subpar play in the field. His Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings has seen a similar rise.
Improvement at the plate and in the field has made Trout’s 2018 performance worth 5.6 wins above replacement heading into Wednesday night’s games, with end-of-year estimates ranging from 10.7 to 10.8. To put that in context, 10 major league teams have failed to accumulate 5 fWAR at the plate this season. Trout is the only player since 2006, the first year MLB instituted leaguewide drug testing, to compile 10 or more fWAR in a season, and he did it twice. If Trout does break the 10-fWAR plateau he will join Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Barry Bonds, Mays, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb as the only players to have three such seasons. As it is, only Cobb and Mantle have been credited with more fWAR through their age-26 seasons — and Trout has almost 400 plate appearances left in 2018.
Still not convinced? According to the Bill James Hall Monitor, Trout is already a Hall of Fame player, posting a score of 112, where 100 is a likely Hall of Famer. There are six center fielders who are ahead of Trout in Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, which “compares players to the players at his position who are already enshrined, using advanced metrics to account for the wide variations in offensive levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history.” Those six are all in the Hall of Fame and read like a Who’s Who of MLB legends: Mays, Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mantle, Griffey and Joe DiMaggio. Four of the seven players behind Trout are also enshrined in Cooperstown.
Typically, I’d agree if you said it was too early to anoint a player as one of the best in their sports midway through their career, but Trout is obviously a once-in-a-generation player that deserves to be listed among the all-time greats.